What comes to mind when someone says, “vitamin A?” If you’re like generations of Americans, you thought of carrots.
You may have grown up hearing the same story as millions of other kids. If you balked at eating your carrots, you parents would say, “But they’re good for your eyes. After all, have you ever seen a rabbit wearing glasses?”
I haven’t seen a rabbit wearing glasses yet. Vitamin A is one of the most important vitamins for health. But our parents only knew part of the vitamin A story. And it’s what they didn’t know that may be the most important part.
Your body uses the active form of vitamin A — retinol — as an antioxidant, good vision, immune system health, and many other functions.
Most of your vitamin A comes from plant pigments called “carotenoids.” These pigments give foods — such as red peppers and carrots — their bright red and orange colors. Your body can convert three of these coloring agents directly into vitamin A. They are…
There are three other important members of the vitamin a family. But your body can’t make vitamin A directly from lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin. However, as you’ll see, all three play an important part in keeping you healthy.
All of vitamin A’s cousins are powerful antioxidants. Take alpha–carotene as an example. What your body doesn’t convert to vitamin A goes to work fighting the free radicals that can damage your cells.
It appears to be especially good for your heart. A 2011 study found that people with higher levels of alpha–carotene in their blood cut their risk of heart trouble.1
Beta–carotene is the most common member of the family. It’s the pigment that gives carrots their good reputation. Many companies use it to boost the vitamin A content of nutritional supplements.
Along with providing plenty of raw materials for good vision, beta–carotene also appears to boost heart health. In a 16–year study, people with the highest beta–carotene intake cut their risk of heart trouble in half.2
Beta–cryptoxanthin isn’t just the hardest of these pigments to pronounce. It’s the least understood, too. But we do know one thing about this powerful antioxidant. Your body uses it to boost its natural DNA defenses. It actually seems to promote the repair of damaged DNA strands.3
Lycopene is the pigment that makes tomatoes and watermelon red. It’s well known as an antioxidant. But some studies show it has another important job. It promotes healthy cholesterol levels.4 It’s also different for another reason. It’s one nutrient that actually works better after it’s cooked.
Finally, we have the two oddball members of the family. If you want to boost your intake of lutein and zeaxanthin — and you should — don’t turn to red veggies. These two vitamin A cousins are more abundant in dark green foods. Foods like kale, spinach, turnip greens and Brussels sprouts.
And here’s why it’s important to get plenty of these two plant pigments:
They may just be the most important nutrients for healthy vision. In fact, they make up 100% of your eyes’ macular pigment (MP). And without MP, you can’t see at all. In clinical trials, MP thickened in people who took in more of these two nutrients.5
If you eat an average amount of fruit and vegetables, you’re probably getting a good amount of beta–carotene and lycopene.
But the other members of this family are harder to work into your diet. To get a good balance of all these vitamin A cousins, you can eat more fruits and vegetables… or take a nutritional supplement that contains a good mix of carotenoids.
Yours in continued good health,
Best Life Herbals Wellness Team
1 Li, C., et al, “Serum α–carotene concentrations and risk of death among US Adults: the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Follow–up Study,” Arch Intern Med. Mar 28, 2011; 171(6): 507–515.
2 Karppi, J., “Serum β–carotene and the risk of sudden cardiac death in men: A population–based follow–up study,” Atherosclerosis. Jan 2013; 226(1): 172–177.
3 Lorenzo, Y., et al, “The carotenoid beta–cryptoxanthin stimulates the repair of DNA oxidation damage in addition to acting as an antioxidant in human cells,” Carcinogenesis. Feb 2009; 30(2): 308–314.
4 Palozza, P., “Effect of Lycopene and Tomato Products on Cholesterol Metabolism,” Ann Nutr Metab. Sep 8, 2012; 61(2): 126–134.
5 Ma, L., “Effect of lutein and zeaxanthin on macular pigment and visual function in patients with early age–related macular degeneration,” Ophthalmology. Nov 2012; 119(11): 2290–2297.